By Colin Chapman
It had been coming for months but was missed by the BBC three-part documentary on the Murdoch Dynasty, which turned out to be a collection of video clips and hoary reminiscences of former New Corporation employees. James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s 47-year old second son, has quit the board of News Corporation.
In a short letter to the Board, James did not mince his words. His resignation was, he wrote, “due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by news outlets and certain strategic decisions”. The reply, signed by Murdoch as executive chairman, and co-chair and elder son (and heir apparent) Lachlan was curt and predictable. It thanked James for his years of service and wished him well “in future endeavours”.
Observers have long noticed that James is not a fan of what appears to be his father’s favourite outlet, Fox News. Fox’s spirited support of the odious Donald Trump and its repeated assaults on so-called ‘fake news’ are the crux of the problem. After Australia’s terrible bush fires last summer, James and his wife Kathryn publicly aired their criticism of News’ Australian papers and Sky News, notably the Herald Sun in Melbourne, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian for repeated denials of climate change. They were vexed by comments like that by columnist Andrew Bolt who attacked people “silly enough to think bushfires are linked to climate change”.
Beware of a British trade minister bearing gifts.
After a month’s vacation dodging the coronavirus in Europe, Homer’s famous phrase about the Greeks came into my head as I came across the headline, ‘Liz Truss expects trade deal to be an exemplar’. Yes, this is the same UK international trade secretary who bobbed up in Canberra 11-months ago, and gushed that she’d picked Australia as one of her first places to visit because it was an ‘absolute priority’ to get on with a trade deal.
Prime minister Scott Morrison was so enthused by Truss that he told reporters Australia would be ‘fleet-footed’ in negotiations. Trade minister Simon Birmingham went further, saying a deal could be completed “in months, even weeks’.
Well, here we are more than 12 months later and the rhetoric is still rolling around like an empty beer barrel on the Tasman Sea. The energetic Truss, who has adopted the kind of pseudo-optimism exuded by Boris Johnson, tweeted recently, “Great to see @Scott Morrison support todays launch of negotiations on a free trade agreement between Australia and the UK”. The prime minister obligingly tweeted back his own delight, adding an FTA would mean “more jobs, more growth, more opportunities for both our citizens to live and work in each other’s countries, post-Covid”.
Having just ploughed my way through the three chapters and tens of thousands of words, with diagrams and charts, of Truss’s strategic negotiating paper, it seems to me unlikely Australia could derive any solid benefits from this exercise before the next federal election. Trade buffs are advised to pour themselves a cold beer or a large glass of chardonnay and read it well before bedtime.
Once you have skipped over the Johnson blather and the cliches about Global Britain, sharing a common language and Head of State, and working closely together in the G20, UN, WTO, Commonwealth of Nations et al, it will be very clear where the Johnson government’s ambitions lie. He sees an FTA with Australia as a stepping stone to full membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership, even though Britain is an offshore island in that other great ocean, the Atlantic.
Having so far failed to negotiate a new trade deal with the European Union – the destination until now of 40 per cent of Britain’s exports – and having abandoned negotiations with the United States until next year because Donald Trump did not live up to his promises, Johnson and Truss are desperate to get into the TPP. The strategy paper, rightly or wrongly, sees Australia as a launchpad from which to attack Asian markets.
As to Australia itself, the British list construction, financial services and the professions as target markets. Curiously, it sees a role for British companies in the construction of Sydney’s second airport already underway at Badgery Creek, the rebuilding of Central station in Sydney, and new railways. This seems an unlikely prospect to those with knowledge of the British government’s multi-billion dollar overspend on airport projects and premium schemes like London’s CrossRail (three years late and massively over budget) and the High Speed new line to Birmingham, ditto.
Truss also makes it clear that Australia can expect little joy on Simon Birmingham’s main ambition for wider access to the British beef market, as the government is pledged to support farmers who expect, from January 2021, to face tariffs from the EU. There will be small reductions available for Australian wine, but this competitive market is over supplied.
While I have been away, this year’s AUSMIN took place in Washington. Despite some media comment that the annual pow-wow is not worth the long trip across the Pacific to the world’s most Covid-infested land, Morrison’s two most senior female ministers seem to have achieved a result. They returned to Canberra with firm evidence that ANZUS is far from dead, as many on the left would have you believe and, importantly, Barack Obama’s US pivot to Asia is alive and well. Moreover, the sometimes subservience to the Beltway’s heavyweights was less in evidence as foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Linda Reynolds stood their ground when secretary of state Mike Pompeo vented his Trump’s views on China.
Undoubtedly it was Payne and Reynolds who paved the way for concord at AUSMIN with the release of Australia’s submission to the United Nations declaring there is no legal basis to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. The declaration not only supported the US position on China’s aggression — building artificial islands and threatening sea lanes — but it also supported the territorial claims of Malaysia, The Philippines and Vietnam to disputed islands. It pointedly reminds the UN secretary-general “The Australian Government rejects any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
That Australia should have acted earlier is a statement of the obvious, but before President Xi Jinping began his campaign against Australia in general and Morrison in particular, there was a reluctance to criticise Beijing, despite displays of arrogance by Chinese envoys in Sydney and Canberra. When I was president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney, my board was told by a highly placed Chinese diplomat that Chinese students at our universities should be subject to Chinese, not Australian, law. We demurred, of course, and informed Bob Carr, then foreign minister, but nothing happened. Carr will debate what to do about China with former PM Tony Abbott at the Centre for Independent Studies next week, an on-line event worth joining.
But back to AusMin. What the two key ministers appear to have done is to stiffen Australia’s resolve to confront Xi’s aggression now rather than putting it off. This will involve re-energised coordination with South East Asian countries with shared concerns and more military co-operation. For its part, Washington will pay for more oil storage tanks to be built near Darwin, pull 12,000 troops out of Germany and relocate most of them as part of the pivot, and invest in Australian strategic minerals. More details are in an article just published by Daniel Kliman and Brendan Thomas-Noone.
Postscript: As Victoria imposed a curfew on the city of Melbourne with premier Daniel Andrews limiting daytime shopping trips to 5km from home his police minister says officers are ‘fed up’ with dealing with miscreants who break the latest lockdown laws. She should be so lucky, In the United Kingdom the hapless PM Boris Johnson has lost control. My picture from The Argus shows how social distancing is working on the beach at the south coast resort of Brighton. There is no organisation, no controls, with Johnson forced to reverse relaxation measures as a surge of new Covid 19 cases hit Britain.
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